I've been in the promotional products business for about 20 years now and I can tell you that I honestly believe that they are 99% worthless as marketing tools.
OK, pick your jaw up off the floor and let me explain that. (Especially if you know me and know how passionate I am about what I do.)
I don't care how many you buy or how much you spend on any given promotional product, if it's not chosen wisely, then it is pretty much worthless as anything more than something people want because it's free.
Whether it's a 50¢ pen or an expensive electronic device or a Rolex watch, or something in between, if the only thought put into choosing the item is: "It's cheap enough for our budget," or "The boss loves wants this," or "I've heard this is really hot right now," or "This was the best thing in the catalog," then there's no true marketing value in the item. Unfortunately, that's how most people choose their promotional products.
So, why do I sell promotional products? Because I think they're an invaluable marketing tool when chosen with thought to such things as marketing goals, target market(s) and method of distribution.
If you are willing to go beyond the budget and quantity questions and work with a promotional products professional who will ask marketing question to better understand what you're trying to accomplish, you can choose a product that will help you what we at Lev Promotions call strategic memorability™. That means that your branded products will work in concert with your overall marketing message and look to create an emotional and/or intellectual connection with your target market. That connection is what makes the difference between a "giveaway" and an effective marketing tool.
So, back to my opening statement - yes I believe that 99% of promotional products are completely worthless - to achieving your goals, that is. That doesn't mean that 99% of the products themselves are worthless; it just means that, for any given situation, 99% of the options will probably not bring you any real marketing value.
Given the results of a deeper dive into what you're trying to accomplish, the "right" 1% (give or take) can be an invaluable addition to your marketing toolbox. That 1% may differ from one project to another and it will almost certainly be different from one company (and maybe even from one division in a company) to another and from one industry to another.